When I became pregnant I knew that folic acid was something I should take to prevent issues in pregnancy. I had bought a packet of the supplement when I came off my pill but ended up pregnant a matter of weeks later, before I had even opened the pack. I immediately started taking them, especially when my GP, when confirming my pregnancy stated that I should have been on them.
I continued to take them until into the second trimester. I repeated this for my two other pregnancies; buying folic acid, getting pregnant quickly and then realising I was on catch up and needed to take them. Since my third pregnancy I haven’t touched a single folic acid supplement.
Yesterday I attended the launch of a new campaign from safefood, the Irish body responsible for food safety and healthy eating, entitled “Babies know the facts about folic”. It was an eye-opening session MC’d by Alison Canavan and with a superb panel of speakers:
Prof Michael Turner UCD Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology / National Lead for HSE Clinical Programme in Obstetrics and Gynaecology
Dr Rhona Mahony Master National Maternity Hospital Dublin
Mr Tom Scott CEO Spina Bifida Hydrocephalus Ireland
Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan Director, Human Health and Nutrition with safefood
Dr Aileen McGloin Communications Manager, Digital and Health with safefood
I thought I knew what I needed to know about folic acid for pregnancy but, true to my Learner Mama name, it turns out I didn’t and I came out much more the wiser. Given the campaign hashtag is #folicfacts I thought I would share some of the facts I am taking away from the launch of this important campaign.
1. Folic acid is not an acid but is a water-soluble vitamin; part of the B vitamin family.
2. In a regular pregnancy you need 400 micrograms of folic acid. It is just not possible to get this amount even from the most healthy of diets (you really don’t want to try to eat 12.5 heads of broccoli everyday). You may even need a higher dose of 5 milligrams (that’s milligrams not micrograms) if you are at higher risk of your baby having a neural tube defect.
3. A baby’s neural tube develops between days 21 and 28 days of pregnancy and therefore you should be taking folic acid at this stage of pregnancy. This is very early. Often before a woman knows she is pregnant. As many pregnancies are unplanned the only way to ensure you are taking it at the key developmental stage is to take it a minimum of 3 months before conception however research shows that less than 1 in 4 women do this.
4. Ireland has the highest rate of neural tube defects in the world. There are approximately 80 cases per year.
5. Two thirds of neural tube defects are preventable by taking adequate levels of folic acid.
6. Neural tube defects are diagnosed during ultrasound; generally at the “big scan” most women get around the 20 week mark.
7. As it is a water-soluble vitamin you do not store it in your system which is why you need to ensure you get adequate amounts every day and this is where a daily supplement comes in.
8.Folic acid is easily available; you can even pick up a packet of it doing your grocery shopping and in real terms costs a matter of cents per day.
9. Of course not all neural tube defects can be prevented but I learnt of some great organisations such as Spina Bifida Hydrocephalus Ireland and Shine in Northern Ireland and the UK who offer support to patients and their families throughout their lives. I also learnt that there is a dedicated clinic in the National Maternity Hospital for those parents facing a diagnosis of a neural tube defect in their baby.
10. Finally, and the biggest revelation for me, is the message that any sexually active woman who could potentially get pregnant (remember no contraceptive is 100% safe) should be taking folic acid. That includes me. I have no plans for another baby but I should be taking folic acid. I am not taking any. It is now on my shopping list. If you take nothing else from this post just take the message that; if you are a sexually active woman take 400 micrograms of folic acid no matter what your current baby plans are.
If you want to learn more there is a hub on the safefood website. They are actively promoting this campaign online via Facebook and Twitter and you may see details in the press, on the radio and even in your local pharmacists.
Of course spread the word; tell all your friends and share the facts about folic acid.